Light after Dark: The Black Death

Light after Dark: The Black Death

"Ring-a-ring o’ roses, a pocket full of of posies, a-tishoo a-tishoo, we all fall down". This children’s nursery rhyme is suggested by some to have been invented during the Medieval Black Death, that killed millions of people within hours of infecting them. The rings in the rhyme referring to the infected’s red, feverish rashes; the posies the bouquets of flowers and smelling salts that people pressed to their noses to prevent being infected by the miasma; and the sneezing and ‘all fall down’ relate to the very short time between becoming infected and dying.

Sally Nicholls, the author of All Fall Down, became fascinated with the Black Death of 1348-50 in an apocalyptic context. “A friend was telling me about [it], and in many ways it reads like an apocalypse novel. The Book of Revelations says a third of the world will be killed by plague. The Black Death was something like 45% of Europe, so it was a bigger disaster than was predicted.”
 
The Black Death (or bubonic plague) might not seem like the most pleasant choice for a children’s novel, but Nicholls says: “I think it’s important to give people stories with which to understand the world that they live in. When I was a teenager I was really interested in apocalyptic novels. I grew up at the end of the Cold War and the beginning of global warming was starting to be an issue, and that was something that really fascinated me.
 
“The teenagers that I talk to are really interested in big stories, big emotions, big ideas, and the end of the world is something that has fascinated humans. That is something that has continued throughout history – this idea that we’re nearing our destruction; we need to be prepared. I don’t know why I was so fascinated; maybe it was the borders of the terrible – if you know the border of the terrible then you’re able to live within it almost.”
 
The Black Death was the biggest disaster in human history, killing almost half of the human population of Europe as well as thousands of livestock. The plague itself had three strains – pneumonic, bubonic and septicemic. Victims of the pnemonic plague would cough up blood; bubonic plague victims were riddled with hard, black boils, and the septicemic plague killed with barely any symptoms at all – those infected probably wouldn’t have realised.
 
But Nicholls believes that despite the tragedy of the plague, it brought about a better Britain: “Generally what happens when we’re faced with disaster is that we get better – our quality of life gets better. The First World War and Second World War are the two biggest disasters that happened in historical memory, and society improved in a lot of ways. The emancipation of women was greatly helped, a lot of technological advances, social advances; people who were expected to live as servants in great houses came back from the war and didn’t want to do that - they wanted to do something else, they wanted to go to university.”
 
Isabel is the 14-year-old heroine in All Fall Down, who lives in a one-roomed house made of wattle and daub in a Yorkshire village with her two brothers, sister and parents. Her family are indentured servants – “not quite a slave,” Nicholls says, “but the closest thing we’ve had to it in Britain since the Romans. She’s not able to leave her land, she’s not able to leave the work that’s required of her, and after the Black Death - although feudalism dragged on for another couple of centuries - at the end of All Fall Down she can just walk out of the village and nobody will know that she was supposed to be there. 
 
“There was a lot of moving around after the Black Death, which is when surnames started being created. With woman again, if your baker’s died, your village needs a baker because there’s only one oven in the village, and if the only person in the village still alive who knows how to run the oven is the baker’s wife then she becomes the baker. So there were much greater advantages for women.”
 
Nicholls doesn’t believe children will be fazed by the grisly bits in the book: “I hope they’ll like them – my editor even said put more gore in! It’s a horrible time – you read contemporary accounts and it’s corpses being eaten by pigs and houses where bodies are left.” A disturbing scene in the book is when Isabel comes across a baby still alive in a house where the whole family has died. She is agonised by the dilemma of saving its life and potentially infecting her family, or leaving it to die alone and saving them. 
 
All Fall Down is a grown-up novel for children that deals with the big ideas and emotions that Nicholls wanted to write about. “Isabel’s story isn’t just about survival. It’s about emancipation, both as a serf and as a woman. 
 
“Nobody expected [the Black Death] to come to them. But it did. And while nuclear war is no longer the terror it was when I was a child, we treat scientists' increasingly panicked predictions about climate change as though they are being written about somebody else, in some other country. Disasters don't just happen in the fourteenth century. As recently as 1918, somewhere between 50 and 100 million people were killed in the Spanish flu pandemic. It may be that the next big story is about to happen.”
 
 
All Fall Down is out today, published by Scholastic. Photograph of Sally Nicholls copyright Dominic Turner.